Defund the police? Let's talk about it.
Updated: Jul 7
First of all, let's not get bogged down by the word. It can be scary, especially if you think it means totally abolish the police.
But when you look at the rallying cry, and then what people mean by it, many different ideas are put forward. Community-based policing, for example. During protests in Minneapolis, community members initiated their own policing in response to attacks on minority-owned businesses, organizing themselves to protect their neighborhood against looting and arson. "Community leaders throughout the city organized a coordinated response, which the police, military and disconnected elected officials never could." (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/10/opinion/floyd-minneapolis-police-protests.html).
Some do mean literally "abolish" (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/opinion/sunday/floyd-abolish-defund-police.html). But more commonly we hear the idea of transferring funds from existing police departments into schools and youth programs, mental health services, and other social needs.
Here in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, law enforcement leadership seems to be ahead of the curve in embracing these ideas. Some reforms are already in place, including return of military equipment to the federal government. Charlottesville's Police Chief Brackney has voiced her support for shifting some funds and functions from the police department to social, educational, and health programs. Albemarle County Chief Lantz has suggested giving back some funding to the county and removing officers from schools, while maintaining a police force for public safety.
Whether these sound principles at the leadership level extend through the rank and file has not been determined. To what degree does a "warrior" mentality influence the actions of individual police officers moving through the community? The existence of Charlottesville's Civilian Review Board suggests the need to address these questions.
And while today our attention is rightly focused on police behavior and attitudes, there is widening recognition that police are being called upon to enforce a socioeconomic system whose racism is far more pervasive. Inequities in jobs, wages, health care, housing, schools, voting rights, access to food, and more underlie the general punitive approach to black and brown communities. Police are just the starting point.
So let's not stop there. First, let's look at how much "funding" there is to be moved from one agency to another. For many decades, schools, health care, and other local services have been chronically underfunded in working-class neighborhoods, especially minority communities, making racial inequities even more devastating. The pandemic has ravaged black and brown populations already bearing the brunt of our broken health care system.
And with the pandemic consuming all our resources, local, city, and state treasuries are running dry. If we don't soon get an emergency infusion from the federal government, there won't be any funds at all for social agencies -- or police departments, either, for that matter. So far Senate leaders have rejected House bills for emergency funding to states. Let's demand that Congress pass legislation to replace monies that cities and counties have had to spend in the pandemic so far.
But let's not stop there. Emergency funding is needed in the short term, but it's unsustainable in the long term. To restore our public treasuries, we must look to where the money is: large corporations and wealthy individuals -- who have increasingly enjoyed tax cuts over the years while the wealth of America has flowed upward to them. It's time for tax justice. It's time for economic justice.
It's time to be outraged about poverty wages, while CEO pay is in the strosphere, corporate profits reach new highs, and stock prices defy all reason. Pay for fast food service workers and grocery store clerks, for example, can average roughly $9 to $10 per hour. (Living wage in the Charlottesville area for an adult with one child has been estimated at about $25 an hour: Orange Dot Project Report 2015.) Is it any wonder that millions of full-time workers have to rely on Medicaid and food stamps to survive? It is any wonder that, when the pandemic forced an economic lockdown, millions of Americans-- white and black -- had zero savings to fall back on?
It's time to be outraged at the economic injustice that inflicts the brutality of inferior working conditions, housing, health care, schools, infrastructure, and environment upon millions of people living in poverty. If it wasn't obvious before, the pandemic has laid bare the truth that systemic racism disproportionately sickens and kills people of color.
More and more white people are waking up to this truth. Unless we address economic injustice, our future and our democracy will not be saved. As long as black and brown people are subjected to racist police violence, no one is safe. We all have a stake in rethinking, restoring, and rebuilding. Addressing racism first is the way for us to go forward together.